Government overseers of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum entered into a sweeping secrecy agreement requested by USC to keep under wraps their negotiations to surrender control of the taxpayer-owned venue to the private university, a top stadium official testified Thursday.
John Sandbrook, the stadium's interim general manager, said USC administrators drafted the confidentiality pact and had it signed by him and three members of the Coliseum Commission, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe.
The one-paragraph agreement is undated, but Sandbrook said it was struck in late September 2011. It states that "nothing discussed shall be disclosed to any unaffiliated third party or during the course of any legal or other judicial or administrative proceedings."
During the next seven months, the full commission conducted all of its deliberations on the pending Coliseum deal with USC behind closed doors.
The secrecy surrounding the lease proposal has been ammunition for critics who say the arrangement is lopsided in USC's favor. For the next 98 years, the lease would grant the school most of the benefits of owning the stadium complex, which includes the neighboring Sports Arena, but guarantee the public little in terms of revenues from or access to the properties. A final vote on it is set for later this month by a state board that owns the Coliseum land.
On Thursday, Sandbrook said the confidentiality pledge was "not on any other document communicated to the public" and the full commission never voted on it. A USC spokesman did not respond to an after-hours request for comment Thursday.
Sandbrook's testimony came on the second day of a deposition taken in an open-government lawsuit against the commission by The Times and Californians Aware, a 1st Amendment group. The suit alleges the agency violated state law by withholding records from the public and conducting the lease deliberations in closed sessions.
The commission sought a new lease with USC after Times reports on Coliseum financial irregularities led to criminal investigations in 2011. A county grand jury last year indicted three former stadium managers and three people who did business with the venue.
Sandbrook became interim general manager of the Coliseum about a month after the scandal broke. He testified that nearly a year later, the commission still had no formal policy prohibiting employees from destroying records. In the lawsuit, The Times notes that at least one email from a former Coliseum manager charged in the corruption case appears to have disappeared.
On Thursday, responding to questions by Times attorney Jeff Glasser, Sandbrook said he eventually directed staff members to follow the city's policy on retaining records. The nine-member commission is made up of city, county and state representatives.
The city rules require in some cases that records be kept several years after a worker's employment ends. As of Thursday, Sandbrook testified, he had not read the policy.
"With the benefit of hindsight, there are a variety of things I would have done differently," he said. Given the continuing upheaval at the commission, he added, "I should have left after the first month."
The retired University of California manager, who had no experience running a stadium, was recruited for the Coliseum job by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a close friend since their college days together. At the time, Yaroslavsky was on the commission.
For the deposition, the commission had designated Sandbrook as the "person most knowledgeable" of the panel's procedures for searching for documents The Times sought under the California Public Records Act. But he repeatedly testified that he lacked such knowledge.
He also said he was not responsible for the commission's failure to respond to a Times request for records about missed contributions to retirement funds for stadium workers. The newspaper's request led to the discovery that Coliseum managers were delivering bags and envelopes of cash to a union representative to cover salaries for stagehands.
The cash deliveries bypassed the Coliseum's payroll system and denied the workers the contributions to their retirement plans. The payouts became the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
Supporters of the proposed USC lease say it is good deal for the public because it requires the university, and not the government, to spend at least $70 million on renovations to the 90-year-old Coliseum, where the school plays football. USC would also pick up the $1-million annual rent payments the commission makes to the state.
Opponents say the lease shortchanges taxpayers because USC would keep as much as 95% of the money from naming and advertising rights to the venue, stop paying the commission roughly $1.5 million to $1.8 million a year in football ticket receipts, and control access to the Coliseum all but a few days a year.
In addition, it allows USC to replace the Sports Arena with a professional soccer stadium or amphitheater and not share the resulting revenues with the public. The state board is reconsidering other provisions that would give USC parking spaces and revenues that now go to public museums in Exposition Park.